James Jerome Gibson (January 27, 1904 – December 11, 1979), was an American psychologist, considered one of the most important twentieth century psychologists in the field of visual perception. In his classic work, The Perception of the Visual World (1950), he rejected the fashionable behaviorism and the classical approach of Hermann von Helmholtz and others to perception for a view based on his experimental work. His theories pioneered the idea that observers sample information from the outside visual world using an active perceptual system rather than passively receiving input through their senses and then processing this input to obtain a construction of the world. For Gibson, the world contained "invariant" information that was directly accessible to the perceptual systems of humans and animals which are attuned to pick up this information through "direct perception."
Gibson used an "ecological approach" to perception, based on the interaction between the observer and the environment. He also coined the term "affordance," meaning the interactive possibilities of a particular object or environment. This concept has been extremely influential in the field of design and ergonomics, as well as work in the context of human-machine interaction.
Gibson focused on the "perceptual system," almost ignoring the role of the higher order cognitive processes. This caused much confusion, misunderstanding, and rejection of his theories. Gibson's desire was to make a contribution to knowledge, and his work succeeded in that regard. It challenged traditional approaches in psychology, stimulating debate, research, and new understanding. He did not solve everything; but he did not expect to.
James Jerome Gibson was born in McConnelsville, Ohio on January 27, 1904. His father was a railroad man and his mother a teacher. He grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. At an early age he was interested in how things appeared in the world. When he was eight he noted that, when viewed from a train, the world "seemed to flow inward when seen from the rear platform and expand outward when seen from the locomotive (Boring and Lindzey 1967, 127). Euclidean geometry intrigued him in high school.
Gibson entered Northwestern University as an undergraduate student, but transferred to Princeton University where he earned both his Bachelors degree (1925) and his Ph.D. in psychology. His doctoral research focused on memory and learning, and constituted the basis of his first publication (Gibson 1928).
His first job was at Smith College, where he taught psychology from 1928 to 1949. There he met Kurt Koffka, the Gestalt psychologist. Gibson never accepted Gestalt psychology, but he did agree with Koffka that the problems of perception were the central problems of psychology (Neisser 1981).
Also at Smith, Gibson met Eleanor Jack, a brilliant psychology student. They married on September 17, 1932. They had two children, James J. and Jean Grier. Eleanor became not only his wife but also his assistant, sharing his views on how to conduct research and his interest in the psychology of perception.
From 1942, Gibson served in World War II, directing the U.S. Air Force Research Unit in Aviation Psychology. In 1949, he returned to Smith, and began to write his first book, The Perception of the Visual World (1950). By the time it was published, he had moved to Cornell University with a large Air Force grant which supported the research on perceptual learning of both Gibsons. Due to anti-nepotism rules at Cornell, Eleanor was unable to secure a teaching position there, working as a research associate until 1965, when the rules changed. At that time, when Eleanor was appointed to an endowed chair in psychology, the Gibsons became one of the first married couples in the same department at the university.
Gibson continued to teach and carry out research at Cornell for the rest of his life, continuing as professor emeritus after retirement in 1972. He served as division president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Eastern Psychological Association. He also received a number of honors, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1961, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1967, and a Festschrift published in his honor in 1974. Yet, it was his research and development of ideas that were of paramount importance to him. He had been a Fulbright scholar at Oxford University, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Until the end of his life, he continued to write papers and discuss his ideas, holding his "famous Thursday afternoon seminars" attended not only by students but by visiting scholars from around the world (Neisser 1981). He completed his final book in 1979.
J.J. Gibson died in Ithaca on December 11, 1979, at the age of 75. His wife, Eleanor, continued teaching and publishing, including her memoir, Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists (2001), that describes the lives, work, and love that she and her husband shared. She died in 2002.
Gibson's greatest desire, according to his own writing, was "to make a contribution to knowledge" (Boring and Lindzey 1967, 141). There is no question that he did just that.
His work is often divided according to his three books, showing the development of his ideas from his initial The Perception of the Visual World (1950), which first presented the idea of direct perception of our surroundings (the "visual world"), through The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966) which presents invariants in the environment as the origin of perception, to his final The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979), which reflected the development of his thinking and emphasis on meaning through the interaction between perception and action, the "affordances" of the environment.
During this quarter century, he also published many significant articles, several together with his wife, Eleanor J. Gibson. They shared the conviction that important phenomena should not be ignored simply because there was no readily available experimental method through which to study them. They also rejected the explanation of perception through the behavioristic assumption that stimulus-response associations account for all forms of learning, including perceptual learning. They argued that perceptual learning is about learning to perceive more of the differentiating qualities of stimuli in the environment, rather than the prevailing view that it was the acquisition of new, more differentiated, responses that are associated with stimuli based on experience (J. J. Gibson and E. J. Gibson 1955a, 1955b). For the Gibsons:
perceptual learning … consists of responding to variables of physical stimulation not previously responded to. … learning is always supposed to be a matter of improvement—of getting in closer touch with the environment (Gibson and Gibson 1955a, 34).
Much of Gibson's ideas about perception was developed during his time directing aviation training during World War II. In that context, it was critical that pilots orient themselves based on characteristics of the ground surface observed visually, rather than through data from their vestibular or kinesthetic senses. Gibson discovered invariants in the terrain and sky, the physical world, that were used as the primary perceptual source. Through his observation of the "flow lines" of motion and texture gradients he developed what he called "ecological optics."
His innovative view of perception challenged the traditional psychology of perception based on the philosophical position that external objects causally affect our sense organs which in turn affect the mind, producing an "idea," which may or may not resemble the objects that caused them. Thus, the pioneer of perceptual research, Hermann von Helmholtz, held vision to be a form of unconscious inference: A matter of deriving a probable interpretation for incomplete data. Gibson dismissed this approach:
The conclusions that can be reached from a century of research on perception are insignificant. The knowledge gained from a century of research on sensation is incoherent. We have no adequate theory of perception, and what we have found in this search for sensations is a mixed bag of illusions, physiological curiosities, and bodily feelings. The implications are discouraging. A fresh start has to be made on the problem of perception (Gibson 1992, 229-230).
He made a fresh start, developing an interactionist view of perception and action that focused on information available in the environment, perceived directly through the perceptual system, not constructed by the perceiver (Greeno 1994). Gibson was a brilliant researcher, and his numerous publications revealed a close attention to details in research design as well as innovative theoretical thinking. He realized that the unbounded visual world can be seen directly; it does not have to be inferred through construction (Neisser 1981).
Gibson's approach is similar to that of Thomas Reid who realized that sensation was composed of a set of data transfers but declared that these were in some way transparent so that there is a direct connection between perception and the world. This idea is called "direct realism," and Gibson's approach is one of "direct perception."
Gibson presented his theoretical model for perception in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). Rather than beginning with the sense organs, or with the whole organism (human being or animal) that is the perceiver, he begins with the environment to be perceived. Thus, the questions he asked were not how does the perceiver construct the world from sensory input and past experience, but rather what information is directly available in the environment when a person or animal interacts with it. Gibson suggested that perceptual systems are attuned to the invariants and variables in the environment, and that this information is actively sought through interaction. For Gibson, the environment contains objective information, "invariants" that allow recognition of the properties of surfaces, objects, and so forth.
Critical to Gibson's model is that perception is an active process, involving movement. Thus, for Gibson there is no traditional problem of how to integrate a sequence of retinal images into a coherent object or scene, for perception is of an active array that constantly changes due to continuous movement. The perceptual system actively seeks invariants in the environment, invariants under changes in illumination, successive sampling of the optic array, transformations due to movement of the observer, or local transformations due to movement or change in objects (Hagen 1992). It is these invariants that allow the observer to perceive the environment and the objects within it, and these invariants are part of the environment and thus perception is not only direct but an accurate view of the world.
However, Gibson did not stop there. He became more and more interested in the question of meaning. The traditional approach, which Gibson naturally rejected, was that objects of perception are in themselves meaningless; meaning is added through higher mental processes such as cognition or memory. Gibson's approach was radically different. He argued that meaning is external to the perceiver and lies in what the environment "affords" the observer.
Gibson defined an "affordance" as the quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. He originally introduced the term in his 1977 article, "The theory of affordances," and explored it more fully in his book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson 1979, 127).
Affordances are "action possibilities" latent in the environment, objectively measurable, and independent of the individual's ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities. "Different layouts afford different behaviors for different animals, and different mechanical encounters" (Gibson 1979, 128). Thus, different objects afford different opportunities for different species—a surface may offer support for a spider but not an elephant—as well as within a species, as what affords sitting for a child may not do so for an adult, and vice versa.
Gibson's theory of affordances has been difficult for many to accept or understand (Greeno 1994). His view of perception based on "perceptual systems" rather than senses had already been hard for others to understand:
I tried to prove that a perceptual system was radically different from a sense (Gibson, 1966), the one being active and the other passive. People said, "Well, what I mean by a sense is an active sense. But it turned out that they still meant the passive inputs of a sensory nerve, the activity being what occurs in the brain when the inputs get there. That was not what I meant by a perceptual system. I meant the activities of looking, listening, touching, tasting, or sniffing. … I was discouraged. People did not understand (Gibson 1979, 244).
With affordances, the confusion has been where to locate the referent of the term. Is the affordance of a chair (sitting) a property of the chair, or of the person who sits on it or who perceives it as something possible to sit on, or something else? Gibson regarded the affordance as
a property of whatever the person interacts with … a property that interacts with a property of an agent in such a way that an activity can be supported … the characteristics of objects and arrangements in the environment that support their contributions to interactive activity and, therefore, the characteristics of the environment that agents need to perceive (Greeno 1994).
The environment thus affords many potential actions to the active observer. For Gibson, the affordance resides outside the observer; it is in the environment, but only potentially, for it depends on the relationship between the environment and an active observer.
Gibson's desire was to make a contribution to knowledge. His work was radical and influential, challenging traditional approaches in psychology. It stimulated debate, research, and new understanding of perception in animals and humans. Many of his ideas have also proved valuable in developing machine vision.
In 1988, Donald Norman appropriated the term "affordances" in the context of human–machine interaction to refer to just those action possibilities which are readily perceivable by an actor. Through his book The Design of Everyday Things (Norman 1988), this interpretation was popularized within the fields of HCI and interaction design. It makes the concept dependent not only on the physical capabilities of the actor, but also their goals, plans, values, beliefs, and past experience. If an actor steps into a room with an armchair and a softball, Gibson's original definition of affordances allows that the actor may throw the recliner and sit on the softball, because that is objectively possible. Norman's definition of (perceived) affordances captures the likelihood that the actor will sit on the recliner and throw the softball. Effectively, Norman's affordances "suggest" how an object may be interacted with. For example, the size and shape of a softball obviously fits nicely in the average human hand, and its density and texture make it perfect for throwing. The user may also bring past experience with similar objects (baseballs, perhaps) to bear when evaluating a new affordance. Norman's 1988 definition makes the concept of affordance relational, rather than subjective or intrinsic. He later explained that this adaptation of the term had been unintended (Norman 1999). However, the definition from his book is much more pertinent to practical design problems from a human-factors approach, which may explain its widespread adoption in the HCI field.
Gibson's work on perception, developed in the context of aviation training, continues to have application for pilots. For example, the training experience should involve realistic environmental settings as much as possible, including in the instructional materials. An unconstrained learning environment is important, since perception is an active process in which the individual seeks information through perceptual systems rather than passively observing what is presented.
Gibson's psychology of perception is referred to as an "ecological approach," based on the interactive relationships between observers and their environments. He believed perceptual experiments had been misconceived, based on the erroneous assumption that controlling the physical variables of stimuli as if what a perceiver "needed to perceive was physics" (Gibson 1992). Gibson argued that the display of stimulus information was what should be manipulated in future research; even that "perfectly good experiments can be done outdoors under the sky without having to construct an artificial display" (Gibson 1992). He expected his work to lead to further research, and, through experimental testing, to be refined and revised.
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